“I got to see the art I wanted to see and eat what I wanted to eat when I wanted to eat it,” my friend said of her recent jaunt to New York. “I’d had so much kid time, I really needed the chance to do things for myself.”
“That’s great,” I affirmed. I hoped I sounded completely sincere. I was, honestly, pretty sincere, and I wished I was even more so. Her end-of-summer divorced parent schedule had given her a long stretch with her kids followed by a long stretch without them. That trip to New York amounted to a divorce perk.
Of course, she’d earned it–in more ways than one. So many things about the choppy life divorced parents and kids experience are difficult. The relief at a chance for total freedom isn’t one of them. A few days in, other feelings return, ones that aren’t so euphoric. My parents are divorced. From inside my body, I get the choppy, frustrated, exhausting compromises that joint custody exacts on everyone. And it’s something I was determined would not happen to me, or my children.
It hasn’t. I’m very, very relieved about this for all of us. As our 20th wedding anniversary approaches, I love my husband still–in ways, much more than I did when I married him, which feels, frankly, like a shocking surprise to child-of-divorce me. That doesn’t mean when my divorced friends call on their trips and nights off, I’m not jealous.
I do regularly become a solo parent to our four kids. When my husband travels for work, we muddle through with varied amounts of challenge and ease. I tend to get into a better, calmer bedtime groove with my kindergartner. I do many more dishes. I let my third son sleep in my bed. He snores, but more quietly than his papa. Regardless of how it goes, I am always exhausted at the end of my one-parent-to-four-kid stretches.
Unlike my divorced friends, there are no New York holidays for me at the end of my solo stints. I might get to go to an evening yoga class, or a fundraising meeting for the school. If my husband/co-parent goes away for a long time, we then endure the unfortunate confluence of my emotional burnout and his rusty parenting muscles. This inevitably results in a sharp uptick in yelling.
While we both want to help the other one out, the readjustment period can be difficult. I try to grab an extra night out or foist some kid-related tasks upon him to even the score, but in our marriage at least, it doesn’t work out evenly, not exactly, even if we’d like it to.
The truth is we each do our parts. He manages the bills; I do the groceries and the laundry. He chauffeurs teens at night; I get them up in the morning. He coaches soccer. I wrote the preschool’s newsletter for nine years. We trade moments of acute worry. We trade funny stories about the kids, and we often roll our eyes at one another. We share both cars. Even if sometimes the way we divvy things up doesn’t feel entirely fair, fluidity is the biggest marital treasure. What our marriage offers us is an abiding, overriding good will toward one another. That’s what makes me love him even more 20 years in. It’s taken that long to develop the ability to be a really skilled team. What happens when things get hard during the readjustment period is that eventually we settle back into our groove, which is, like most families’ lives, ragged and imperfect and tiring and funny and comfortably ours.
When my friends go on about their routines that involve leisure, even if by leisure, I mean not being responsible for the kids’ needs first, I have to work really hard to cultivate genuine happiness for them. I know that they’d prefer to have their kids more, not less. I know that for their kids, the back-and-forth is wearing. I was one of those kids and I still remember just how jostled I felt pretty much always. Even though I know that and feel that, I do think, pretty much every week, how nice it would be to have that reliable Get Out of Jail Free card. The idea that I could relax for a whole 24 or 48 hours in my house is so tantalizing I’d almost get divorced for that alone…some weeks. I fixate upon how lovely those 48 hours in New York would be, the ones entirely to myself without the need to referee the teens’ squabbles from afar nor to coach the dear husband about what to pack in the lunch boxes.
However, when I step back, it does not seem at all pleasing to imagine no one calling me for help for 24 or 48 hours every week. I am glad to be needed–and to have the freedom to be needed at any time, not on a schedule. I am grateful not to pine for my kids. I’d prefer my unrequited feelings to be for time alone than the other way around. I’m even glad that my marriage is worn in, like an excellent pair of jeans you can no longer find.
Since I am not about to get divorced, I think I’ve got a mini-escape plan. The next week he’s gone, I’ll book myself 48 hours in New York to commence the very day he returns. As for my phone, I think it may just stay on the kitchen counter.